Robert Stein 1924-2014

Contact Information

If anyone has comments, questions or condolences, please feel free to send a private message to the family at robertstein@optonline.net.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Kiss for Condi

The Secretary of State must be thinking about Life After Bush. In Sweden for an international conference on Iraq this week, Condoleeza Rice accepted an invitation to attend a rock concert by Kiss and pose for pictures with Gene Simmons and the guys.

The prospect of going back to teach at Stanford and write her memoirs may seem a little tame after all the years of globe-hopping and, despite the rumors, there is little chance Rice will end up as John McCain's running mate. Granted that she is a demographic twofer, the Republican candidate will have enough trouble answering charges about Bush's third term without her presence on the ticket.

But running for the Senate against one of California's two women there may be something else again. Barbara Boxer is up for reelection two years from now and Dianne Feinstein in 2012.

By then, Rice's White House albatross may have withered, leaving her name recognition and foreign policy experience as assets.

After attending only the fourth rock concert in her life--she saw Smokey Robinson, Earth Wind and Fire and U2--if the classical music-loving Secretary starts being sighted at other pop culture events, it will confirm that something is up.

End Game

As the Clintons face the inevitable in the Rules and Bylaws Committee today and the last primaries next Tuesday, they may want to look back half a century at the Democrat who set the standard for losing gracefully.

"I'm too old to cry, and it hurts too much to laugh," Adlai Stevenson said after his defeat in the 1952 presidential election by Dwight Eisenhower. He was quoting Lincoln, but the grownup grace was all his own.

Stevenson lost again four years later but in 1960 some of the party elders still backed him for the nomination, notably Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Truman, who deemed JFK "too inexperienced."

But Kennedy won them over, and the rest is history. At the '60 Convention, Stevenson closed ranks by introducing the nominee for his acceptance speech, and Kennedy responded in kind:

"I want to express my thanks to Governor Stevenson for his generous and heart-warming introduction. It was my great honor to place his name in nomination at the 1956 Democratic Convention, and I am delighted to have his support and his counsel and his advice in the coming months ahead."

Note to Hillary, Bill, Barack et al: The Democrats won the White House that year, and JFK appointed Stevenson US Ambassador to the UN, where he played a critical role during the Cuban Missile Crisis two years later.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Scott McClellan's Sheltered Life

His belated discovery that the Bush Administration was a "permanent campaign" reflects the naiveté of a young man who started out managing his mother's campaign for Texas Comptroller and spent the rest of his working life inside the Bush bubble.

"A president-elect," Scott McClellan writes in his book, "should insist that those overseeing his transition into office learn about the permanent campaign--what it is, how it works, and the consequences of embracing it. A president-elect should also insist that his senior staff heed the same lessons.

"This could enable new administrations to avoid some of the pitfalls the Bush administration fell into, such as taking a massive campaign apparatus into the governing structure of the White House--a particularly dangerous mistake when there is no strong, counterbalancing force in place."

Say what? Some of us have been pointing out for years that Bush was the first American president who had no interest in running the country, just running for office.

Stooping to self-quotation, here is my post of November 4, 2006 headed "RIP: President Pitchman":

"The joy will go out of George W. Bush’s life on November 8, 2006. Whether or not Republicans hold on to Congress, Bush’s loss will be irreparable. He will no longer have what gives his existence meaning.

"Before Monicagate, Maureen Dowd nailed Bill Clinton as 'the only President who is still social-climbing,' a capsule for his combination of ambition, neediness and guile.

"Bush is the only President who never stopped campaigning and started governing.

"After November 7th, he will lose that. Karl Rove & Company may still provide reruns of his favorite milieu: hand-picked cheering crowds and brainless banners, catch phrases to demonize Democrats, self-satisfied smiles belaboring the obvious (9/11 changed the world) and twisting it to his needs (tear up the Constitution to get the terrorists).

"But the real thrill will be gone--persuading voters to part with their rights as easily as carnival barkers sold elixirs to clueless rubes. Bush will be left only with press conferences to smirk uncomfortably at reporters asking about real issues. As always, he will have no answers, only nostrums.

"R.I.P, President Pitchman."

Scott McClellan really should have gotten out of the White House more.

Obama-McCain Numbers Game

Reading tea leaves from the new November polls is as hard as it was a year ago to see what was really going behind the numbers that showed Hillary Clinton running away with the Democratic nomination.

Now, despite post-Bush Republican disarray, the new Pew poll shows "a tightening general election matchup between Obama and McCain" under a headline that says, "McCain's Negatives Mostly Political, Obama's More Personal."

It's tempting to decode that as racism, but the reasons are surely more complicated.

For a start, there is the question of familiarity. Like Clinton, McCain has been in national politics much longer than Obama with a reputation for being strong-minded and independent, an edge that may account for some of his support as it did in the case of the former First Lady last year among voters who don't follow politics closely.

Moreover, the Clinton campaign's attacks on Obama are still fresh, as reflected in figures that show only 46 percent of her supporters saying the party will unite behind him in November.

Over the next five months, Democrats will be faced with healing those wounds and winning over Obama doubters who find his promise of change threatening rather than hopeful.

The candidate himself will have to do the heavy lifting to persuade the 82 percent of voters unhappy with the way things are going that he is a better answer to their disaffection than a Republican, no matter how personable, who will continue Bush's policies on the economy and the war in Iraq.

Obama's choice of a running mate will weigh heavily in that equation. After that, he surely will have to go to Iraq and show himself as a potential commander-in-chief who can connect with the troops while winning the respect of their senior officers, even as he proposes to change the policies that have mired them there.

The election is his to lose, no matter what the tea leaves say now.

Playing God in Washington

Three years after posturing over Terri Schiavo's right to be kept alive after brain death, members of Congress are faced with real end-of-life questions in proposed legislation to force the FDA to speed up its drug-approval process and give terminally ill patients access to investigative drugs.

Last week they had to look into eyes of a 12-year-old Maryland girl with inoperable liver cancer as her mother pleaded on her behalf.

"Finding help for a sick child should be easy, but it isn't," said Anna Tomalis' mother, who told them her daughter had been turned away from drug studies because she is not healthy enough. "For Anna, time is running out. She doesn't have years to wait for these drugs to become available."

The new bill is sponsored by Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback and California Democratic Rep. Diane Watson. "What we need is a system that looks at the patient and their life-or-death situation, not at a bureaucracy and its needs," says Brownback, a melanoma survivor. "This is deadly neglect, and it can't continue."

From the other end of the political spectrum, Rep. Watson cites the grass-roots movement that demanded experimental drugs for terminally ill AIDS patients, arguing that "anyone whose diagnosis amounted to being handed a death sentence" should "have an opportunity to try these drugs."

In January, the Supreme Court let stand a ruling that the terminally ill have no constitutional right to be treated with experimental drugs.

According to Brownback, only 650 people out of 4.8 million who died of cancer were given such treatment over a recent eight-year period.

An oncologist and researcher who testified about balancing public safety with risks notes, "It takes 10 years and $50 million to develop a new drug--that's insane...Cancer patients have a sense of hopelessness. That's something human beings cannot tolerate. Hopelessness is the worst disease in the world. These patients need some hope."

The FDA will have to make a strong case for withholding it.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

A Brief History of Presidential Snitches

Scott McClellan has stirred a hornet's nest, not only among former Bush colleagues but journalists and political observers as well.

"Turncoat Time" is the head for Washington Post media critic's roundup of reactions including his own:

"Now he tells us? McClellan had deep qualms about Bush using propaganda to sell the Iraq war, about being misled on Valerie Plame, about the president being in denial on Hurricane Katrina, and he utters not a peep of public protest until he's ready to sell his book?...

"What's fascinating is that the conservative commentators who always sided with McClellan against the media mob are now denouncing him as a second-rate Benedict Arnold, while the liberal pundits who always ridiculed McClellan are hailing his belated truth-telling (while still ripping him as a sellout)."

Not fascinating, just predictable, but how much do we have a right to know about the inner workings of a White House and, perhaps more important, when?

In 1962, when Ike's former speech writer Emmet Hughes wrote a tell-all book about his Eisenhower days, John F. Kennedy was appalled.

According to Ted Sorensen, Kennedy thought Hughes "had betrayed the trust of Republican officials by quoting their private conversations against them" and told his White House staff, "I hope no one around here is writing that kind of book."

Sorensen didn't and was scolded by some reviewers for his reticence, but others did and made headlines. This month, almost 50 years later, in a 556-page memoir, Sorensen still isn't dishing any dirt.

No Scott McClellan, he. But Kennedy's counselor was not working for a president who consistently lied in public and took his country into an unnecessary war with those lies.

If he had been, as someone who knows Sorensen's character first-hand, I am sure he would have resigned and gone public with what he knew, as McClellan and so many others who knew more, like Colin Powell, did not.

Loyalty is a virtue in a public man, but the question McClellan raises is loyalty to whom--the occupant of the Oval Office or the people who put him there. If he had spoken out three years sooner, they might be putting up statues of Bush's former press secretary. As it is, he'll have only his reviews and royalties to warm him on the long winter nights ahead.

Obama Says Uncle

On Memorial Day, Barack Obama told a group of veterans, “My grandfather marched in Patton’s army, but I cannot know what it is to walk into battle like so many of you."

He went on to talk about an uncle, "part of the American brigade that helped to liberate Auschwitz" and, returning from the war, spent six months in an attic: “Now obviously, something had really affected him deeply, but at that time there just weren’t the kinds of facilities to help somebody work through that kind of pain.”

Since then, the GOP gaffe police have been gleefully pointing out it was the Russians who freed Auschwitz and that Obama's mother was an only child, causing his campaign to scramble and admit that he should have said "great uncle" and "Buchenwald."

Sloppy as he may been with the words, Obama had the music right, as a Patton army contemporary of his ancestors can attest.

In the spring of 1945, we were sweeping through Germany and Austria. Along the way, we saw stragglers in ragged stripes, dazed gaunt figures wandering the roads and being picked up by Army trucks. We didn't know the names of the places they had come from, but we knew who they were, and the sight of them was an indelible reminder of why we had been fighting.

Most of us didn't spend any time in attics after coming home, but our lives were changed forever by having seen what human savagery can do.

Obama was trying to evoke and honor that pain. What he said might not win any prizes on a quiz show, but it was true to the spirit of Memorial Day and human decency.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Marine Missionaries

To the witches' brew of Muslim sectarian hatred and violence in Iraq, some US Marines are stirring the pot with a little evangelism of their own.

Guarding the entrance to Fallujah, they are handing out coins that ask "Where will you spend eternity?" on one side and provide the answer on the other, "For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. John 3:16."

Complaints by local citizens have stirred a response from an American military spokesman: "Iraq is investigating a report that US military personnel in Fallujah handed out material that is religious and evangelical in nature. Local commanders are investigating since the military prohibits proselytizing any religion, faith or practices."

The coin controversy follows the uproar over a US sniper who used Islam's holy book for target practice earlier this month and was removed from the country after tribal leaders found a Quran with 14 bullet holes and graffiti on the pages.

All this is not helping allay fears in the Arab world that we are trying to bring something more than democracy to Iraq.

A Deprogrammer or an Exorcist?

Like any family with a member who has gone off the rails, the Bushies are beside themselves with worry about poor Scott McClellan.

"It's sad," Dana Perino pouts. "This is not the Scott we knew."

"This doesn't sound like Scott," Karl Rove headshakes. "It really doesn't. Not the Scott McClellan I have known for a long time...sounds like somebody else, it sounds like a left-wing blogger."

Ari Fleischer is "heartbroken."

Former White House Counsel Dan Bartlett is dazed. "It's almost like we're witnessing an out-of-body experience," he says. "We're hearing from a completely different person we didn't have any insight into."

Now that McClellan has developed some kind of truth addiction, White House loyalists are holding a public intervention, not sure whether to consult a deprogrammer or an exorcist to bring back the good old lying Scott they used to know.

Rove echoes every family member who has gone through such an experience, wondering if he should have detected some sign of trouble.

"If he had these moral qualms," Rove says, "he should have spoken up about them. And frankly I don't remember him speaking up about these things. I don't remember a single word."

If only they had known, they could have increased the doses of Kool-Aid.

An Affair to Remember

John McCain is cheating on voters with George Bush, but he's not good at it, getting caught in a quickie at the Phoenix airport before going off for their fund-raising tryst at a Scottsdale hideaway.

Barack Obama, the public moralist, ratted out the couple during an appearance in Las Vegas: “John McCain is having a different kind of meeting...behind closed doors in Arizona. No cameras, no reporters. And we all know why."

History shows it's hard for candidates to run away from their past. In 2000, to take voters' minds off Monica Lewinsky, Al Gore ran a Clinton-free campaign and may have lost the election as a result.

McCain's problem is even stickier. He has to hide his love child with Bush, the war in Iraq, while persuading voters about his superior political morality and the advantage of his experience over Obama's naivete.

There has never been any love lost between McCain and Bush since their disastrous encounters in the 2000 primaries but, like many couples with a history, they find it hard to stay away from each other.

In common with employees of the Washington Madam, McCain can tell himself he's only doing it for the money, but we know how that turned out.

Bush has been a stealth president for some time, so it may be possible to keep their connection furtive for now. But the real test will come in September: Will they be seen together at the Republic convention?

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Scott McClellan's Slo-Mo Conscience

In his new book, Bush's former Press Secretary reveals his boss was not “open and forthright on Iraq,” took a “permanent campaign approach” to governing at the expense of candor and competence and that some of his own statements in the White House briefing room podium were “badly misguided.”

For someone whose job it was to control information, Scott McClellan is not very good at it. It's encouraging that he is blowing the whistle on the Bush Administration, but his lips have been pursed for more than six months when his publisher leaked an excerpt last November:

"The most powerful leader in the world had called upon me to speak on his behalf and help restore credibility he lost amid the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. So I stood at the White house briefing room podium in front of the glare of the klieg lights for the better part of two weeks and publicly exonerated two of the senior-most aides in the White House: Karl Rove and Scooter Libby.

"There was one problem. It was not true.

"I had unknowingly passed along false information. And five of the highest ranking officials in the administration were involved in my doing so: Rove, Libby, the Vice President, the President’s chief of staff, and the President himself."

The next day McClellan's publisher explained that his author "did not intend to suggest Bush lied to him" but told him what "he thought to be the case" and "didn't know it was not true."

This week, advance copies of the book were given to selected reporters with an embargo on news from it until next Sunday, but Politico is spilling the beans tonight from a copy bought in a bookstore.

Now, McClellan will make a lot of money from royalties and lectures, but the question arises: Why did he wait to tell the truth until it was profitable for him to do so instead of quitting his job and going public when it might have helped save lives in Iraq and disempower some of the liars he was working with?

Bush's Last Crack at bin Laden?

Unredeemable as his tenure may seem, George W. Bush could leave office on a high note with, to borrow his cowboy terminology, Osama bin Laden's scalp.

After 9/11, Bush said of the al Qaeda mastermind, "I want justice. And there's an old poster out West that says, 'Wanted: Dead or Alive.'"

Now, according to an Arabic TV network, "in the past few days US security and military officials had a top-level summit at a military base in the Qatari capital, Doha, to plan an operation to hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.

"General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq and the US ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Petersen, were reported to have attended the summit...

"Reports say that the CIA has located the Saudi terrorist in so-called 'rooftop of the world.' the area of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan to the west, in particular the chain of mountains of Nurestan and China to the north."

We have heard all this before and from more reliable sources, but what could salvage Bush's legacy more--and bolster McCain's chances to succeed him--than finally "getting" bin Laden?

Earlier this month, after the President's Middle East tour, the al Qaeda leader was shifting his emphasis away from Iraq and Saudi Arabia by proclaiming, "We will continue, God permitting, the fight against the Israelis and their allies...and will not give up a single inch of Palestine as long as there is one true Muslim on earth."

In the past seven years, our Commander-in-Chief has failed to silence that taunting voice. Will we be seeing a last-ditch effort to do that now?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Cable TV: Information Highway Robbery

Their licenses to steal are paying off better each year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reports Cable TV fees rising 77 percent since 1996, roughly double the rate of inflation.

For most American TV viewers, unless they buy iffy satellite dishes, hooking up to the local Cable provider is the only game in town. No matter where they live, their community gets paid to give one seller an exclusive franchise to pump information and entertainment into homes and pump out more money each year.

Imagine the US postal system not only being paid by citizens to deliver their mail but by magazines, newspapers and catalogue publishers to decide which of them to allow into the mailboxes.

It started 60 years ago when a small-town Pennsylvania shopkeeper, having trouble selling TV sets because a mountain was blocking reception from Philadelphia, put an antenna on the peak and began stringing wire into his customers' homes. It solved his sales problems and opened the way for cable systems to take over the nation's eyes and ears.

At first, franchises were handed out piecemeal in time-honored ways, by bribing local politicians, but national corporations soon took over, and now Comcast, Time Warner and a few others have it all locked up.

Every so often, Congress and the FCC are stirred to try to allow consumers to buy cable services a la carte instead of the packages providers deliver, but that might agitate the cash cows into delivering less corporate milk and the lobbyists are having none of that.

Three years ago, I started giving Cablevision $90 a month for cable, internet and long-distance phone service, but since then, the price has ballooned to more than twice that. Then again maybe I shouldn't complain. Now I can get dozens of channels in Spanish, Russian, Hindi and Yiddish that weren't available before.

Ole and oy vey!

A Grateful Nation Turns Its Back

Returning from World War II, my generation was welcomed home with open arms, gratitude and a GI Bill to pay for our college education.

For its counterpart today, a New York Times editorial points out, "the commander in chief now resists giving the troops a chance at better futures out of uniform. He does this on the ground that the bill is too generous and may discourage re-enlistment, further weakening the military he has done so much to break."

Luckily, His Lame Duckness will be overruled by a Congress facing reelection and more sensitive to the popular will, but what does all this say about George W. Bush and his wannabe successor, the warrior patriot, John McCain?

According to the Times, "Mr. Bush--and, to his great discredit, Senator John McCain--have argued against a better G.I. Bill, for the worst reasons. They would prefer that college benefits for service members remain just mediocre enough that people in uniform are more likely to stay put."

Even worse, McCain has used the issue to attack Barack Obama, who supports the bill: "I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did," he huffed, overlooking the small point that his antagonist was six years old when McCain was taken POW in Vietnam.

In the Bush-McCain worldview, the citizen soldiers of the Greatest Generation have morphed into personnel whose lives come second to the needs of a military that has been stretched to the breaking point in Iraq

Responding to McCain's attack, Obama said, "It's disappointing that Senator McCain and his campaign used this issue to launch yet another lengthy personal, political attack instead of debating an honest policy difference."

"Disappointing" is a mild word for what the proprietors of the Iraq war are doing with their opposition to the 21st century version of what the Times says "became known as one of the most successful benefits programs--one of the soundest investments in human potential--in the nation’s history."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Recounting the 2000 Recount

HBO wasted two hours of viewers' lives tonight with a docudrama, "Recount." To the painful injury of the original experience itself, it added the insult of gratuitously inventing dialogue and caricaturing some of the principals to no dramatic purpose whatsoever. (Howard Kurtz explains it all in the Washington Post.)

A Russian expatriate once told me about the night he was thrown out of a theater back home for interrupting a boring production of "The Cherry Orchard" by yelling at the actors, "Stop talking, sell the furniture and go to Moscow."

The writer of "Recount" is no Chekhov, and dramatizing the Florida fiasco with invented details and no new insight offers no emotional catharsis for those who were either disgusted or gratified by the original on the TV and cable networks.

Forgive me, Kevin Spacey, but a well-made documentary would have been a better idea.

A "Redneck" Running Mate for Obama?

Virginia Sen. Jim Webb hates the word but uses it, "not pejoratively," to describe himself and the kind of poor white people who feel left out of what affirmative action has done for other ethnic groups in America--in short, those who are voting against Barack Obama in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, West Virginia and elsewhere.

As Hillary Clinton implodes, talk of Webb as a running mate grows. The problems are obvious: A ticket of two first-term Senators who write books?

But the pluses are tantalizing: Webb would bring, not only race-and-class complement to Obama, but executive experience (as Reagan's Secretary of the Navy), a military background as a decorated ex-Marine to match John McCain's and a rugged domestic centrism to overcome the elite/effete stereotype with which the Republicans will try to Swiftboat the standard bearer.

In its new cover story, "Obama and Race," Newsweek, after noting the "Racial Resentment Index" Obama faces, ends its memo of advice to the candidate by quoting Webb about "the Scots-Irish who so heavily populate the hills of Appalachia...like 'tortured siblings of black Americans. They both have a long history and they both missed the boat when it came to larger benefits that a lot of people were able to receive.'

"If poor rural whites and African-Americans could sit down together, they would find that they have much in common. When you visit West Virginia and Kentucky, you could begin that conversation with some town meetings. Webb has also observed that the Scots-Irish hill folk are by nature scrappers and fighters.

"That's one reason they admired Hillary and voted for her. You need to show them you are a fighter, too—-and that you will fight for them."

Obama and Webb would be a good fit on the war in Iraq as well as social issues. Soon after the invasion by American troops, Webb wrote in the New York Times: "Visions of cheering throngs welcoming them as liberators have vanished in the wake of a bloody engagement...chaotic guerrilla warfare, replete with hit-and-run ambushes, dead civilians, friendly fire casualties from firefights... a 'downstream' payback of animosity and revenge."

A Starbucks/moonshine cocktail might be just the pickmeup Democrats need this year.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Man Called "Sweet Pea"

This Memorial Day, as they have for the past five years, residents of Skowhegan, Maine will be thinking about Jay Aubin, one of the first among 4081-and-counting American troops to die in Iraq.

What the numbers conceal is the continuing grief of countless families, friends and neighbors in every corner of the country who live with the loss of young men and women like Aubin, who was 36 when he died on March 20, 2003, leaving behind a wife, two young children and memories of a good life.

On a wall at Margaret Chase Smith School in Skowhegan are pictures of him from the time he was a middle-schooler who wanted to be a pilot to photos of a Marine officer with his flight helmet next to a helicopter with markings on the side: Capt. "Sweet Pea" Aubin, so named for his upbeat attitude.

A teacher there has used him as a model to show students they can achieve whatever they want and still be kind to people. "If you can be 'Sweet Pea' and be a macho Marine pilot, you can be 'Sweet Pea' on the playground, 'Sweet Pea' in the cafeteria," he explains. "There's no reason not to be nice no matter who you are or who you want to be."

Apparently he never changed. As a Marine, Aubin, who didn't drink, would check a bus out of the motor pool and park in front of the dance hall after a ball to provide rides for those who drank too much.

"If the helicopter goes down and anyone is killed, I want to go, too," he once told his mother.

Aubin died in a crash during a dust storm near the Kuwait border in the first days of the war.

This weekend, as politicians make speeches and veterans march and flags fly, the people who knew him will be thinking of a man called "Sweet Pea," as countless others will be remembering young men and women like him. No words or symbols will take away the pain of losing them.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Campaigns' Most Morbid Day

Death will not take a holiday this Memorial Day weekend, which starts with Hillary Clinton's bizarre invocation of Robert Kennedy's assassination as a reason for staying in the race and John McCain's release of his medical records in a scene straight out of "Citizen Kane."

Others may not go as ballistic as Keith Olbermann did over the RFK reference, but the former First Lady, who had to live for eight years with the specter of her husband's possible death as a condition of occupying the White House, was far out of bounds in raising the subject, as her own ensuing backpedaling and her campaign's multiple explanations indicate.

Mortality was an issue for Republicans as well with the carefully controlled viewing of 1,173 medical documents relating to John McCain's health.

As described by the New York Times Caucus blog, the circumstances resemble the "Citizen Kane" scene in which a newsweekly reporter is allowed to examine his deceased guardian's memoirs in a vault with an armed guard standing by:

"Senator McCain’s campaign is making the documents available in a limited way (they cannot be copied or taken out of a room at a resort in Phoenix; and only certain media organizations--not The Times--were allowed in as pool reporters). And they can only be reviewed for a few hours today."

Years ago, news media used to report predictions of the numbers of highway fatalities for holiday weekends like the odds on football games. Discretion ended that practice, but for this holiday weekend at least, potential death is back in the headlines again.

Package Deals of Prejudice for November

As vice-presidential searches start, Democrats and Republicans are in a position to offer voters full-course menus to express their fears and hatreds.

The growing clamor for a Clinton-Obama ticket would give mysogynists and racists a joint outlet, while ageism and anti-Mormon intolerance would be provided by McCain and Romney, who are sharing barbecue in Arizona this weekend.

When the issue of a Catholic president was up in 1960 or a divorced man in Reagan's 1980 run, discrimination was relatively primitive. Now, in the era of anything-goes, ballots can proffer demographic breakthroughs wholesale.

The only problem would be disentangling which prejudices drew the most votes for or against each ticket, but that will be a job for the pollsters and pundits.

Coalition of the Willing to Be Paid

If we're failing to win hearts and minds, it's not because we're cheapskates.

Recently, the US Army paid 1,000 Iraqis $320,800 each for "Services Other Than Personal” based on one signature and no further explanation. Such largesse is cited in a new audit of $8.2 billion that finds, according to the New York Times, "almost none of the payments followed federal rules and that in some cases, contracts worth millions of dollars were paid for despite little or no record of what, if anything, was received."

In addition, the audit showed "a sometimes stunning lack of accountability in the way the United States military spent some $1.8 billion in seized or frozen Iraqi assets...often doled out in stacks or pallets of cash."

“It sounds like the coalition of the willing is the coalition of the willing to be paid,” said Henry Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, who yesterday introduced a “clean contracting” amendment to a defense authorization bill being debated by the House. Accepted by voice vote, it institutes reforms that include whistleblower protections and strict requirements on competitive bidding.

But such measures will come too late to stop a $5.6 million Treasury check written to pay a Baghdad trading company for items that the voucher doesn't detail or $6.2 million to another contractor with even less explanation or a scrawl on another piece of paper for $8 million, described only as “Funds for the Benefit of the Iraqi People.”

At this rate, we shouldn't have had to fight to liberate Iraq. We could have just bought it, lock, stock and oil barrel.

McCain's Crosses to Bear

Now that he is being bedeviled by two embarrassing preachers, the Republican standard bearer may be thinking back wistfully to 2000 when he took a stronger stand on the separation of church and state.

Yesterday, McCain officially dumped Pastor John Hagee, who has called the Catholic Church "the Great Whore" and claimed Hitler had been fulfilling God’s will by hastening the desire of Jews to return to Israel in accordance with biblical prophecy.

But the candidate is still accepting the embrace of televangelist Rod Parsley, who calls on Christians to wage a "war" against the "false religion" of Islam with the aim of destroying it.

In 2000, when he was being pounded by evangelicals supporting George W. Bush, McCain said, "I recognize and celebrate that our country is founded upon Judeo-Christian values...but political intolerance by any political party is neither a Judeo-Christian nor an American value.

"The political tactics of division and slander are not our values, they are corrupting influences on religion and politics, and those who practice them in the name of religion or in the name of the Republican Party or in the name of America shame our faith, our party and our country.

"Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left, or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right."

In the intervening years, the driver of the Straight Talk Express has wooed those he was denouncing then and is now paying a political price for it by having to throw Hagee under the bus.

If this keeps up, McCain may have to rethink not inviting Mike Huckabee, a less controversial man of the cloth, as one of the possible running mates he is entertaining this weekend.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

General Petraeus, Meet President Obama

The human shield that Bush and his true believers have used to prolong the war in Iraq is now speaking out against making the same mistake in Iran.

Gen. David Petraeus, nominated to lead US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, will tell the Senate Armed Services Committee today that he supports continued engagement with international and regional partners to find diplomatic, economic and military leverage to deal with the challenge of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime.

The Washington Post reports that, in written answers to questions posed by the Committee, Petraeus said the possibility of military action against Iran should be retained as a "last resort" but that the US "should make every effort to engage by use of the whole of government, developing further leverage rather than simply targeting discrete threats."

This Senate testimony today may come as a shock to John McCain, Joe Lieberman et al who have been attacking their colleague Barack Obama for saying just that on the Presidential campaign trail.

Cynics may find Petraeus' attitude little more than a political adjustment to the inevitability of a Democratic Commander-in-Chief next year, but the General, despite his fronting for Bush-Cheney policies, has been a closet realist who has always maintained that we "can't kill our way out of Iraq."

It's encouraging to see him coming out of the closet.

The Can-Do Kennedy

Unlike his brothers, Ted Kennedy won't leave behind any soaring rhetoric for the history books, but colleagues in both parties this week are recalling his four decades as the Senate's most practical politician who "routinely reached across party lines on a wide number of issues to cut landmark deals."

In contrast to their public use of his name to signify woolly-headed liberalism, Republicans are talking about the "go-to guy" in getting laws on the books, practitioner of a lost bipartisan art in the era of Bush-Rove scorched-earth polarization.

“He’s a legislator’s legislator," says Sen. Jon Kyl. "At the end of the day, he wants to legislate, he understands how, and he understands compromise.”

“I’ve known and worked with him for 40 years," recalls GOP Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander. "He’s results-oriented. He takes his positions, but he sits down and gets results,” Alexander said.

Jack and Bobby Kennedy were tough acts to follow, and their younger brother turned out not to have their talent for words to inspire voters. In 1980, his attempt to challenge Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination was undone when he fumbled the answer to Roger Mudd's question of why he wanted to be president in a TV interview.

Instead, Ted Kennedy fell back on the old-pol genes of his maternal grandfather, Honey Fitz Fitzgerald, who helped build modern Boston during four decades as mayor after his family came over from Ireland during the Potato Famine.

Now, Republicans like John McCain' sidekick Lindsey Graham are being wistful about cutting deals with Ted Kennedy with a handshake or promise when they hammered out laws such as one on policy toward foreign detainees.

“When we worked on the detainee bill it was just members of the Senate and members of the executive branch literally writing a bill, line by line,” Graham remembers. “He told me it was like the Civil Rights Bill, where you just put people in a room and you wouldn’t let them out.”

When a new American era starts next January, both Democrats and Republicans are hoping Ted Kennedy will still be there to show them how it's done.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Lieberman, Leper-to-Be

The former Democrat, then Independent, now Republican sheep dog for John McCain refuses to go gentle in that good night, today barking lies about Barack Obama in the Wall Street Journal.

Obama, Joe Lieberman says, proposes "a blanket policy of meeting personally as president, without preconditions, in his first year in office, with the leaders of the most vicious, anti-American regimes on the planet."

The Democratic nominee-to-be has proposed no such "without preconditions" thing, but that doesn't stop Lieberman from indicting his former party as having gone gutless, in contrast to the good old days of the Cold War when Kennedy was misled by hawks into the Bay of Pigs disaster and then, as Ted Sorensen tells it in his new memoirs, had to use an exquisite combination of brains, toughness and diplomacy to keep the world from blowing up during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But as Gilda Radner used to say, never mind. When Obama is in the Oval Office next January and Democrats have a solid majority in the Senate, Chairman Joe of the Homeland Security Committee may find himself a very lonely former Democrat, former McCain advisor and former Chairman.

Deciding Demographic: The Inattentive

Give or take Florida and Michigan, some 35 million American voters have determined that Barack Obama will contest John McCain to become the next president. Now comes the harder part.

Of all the demographic divisions--gender, race, age, economic status, education--Obama faces the most crucial of all, between those who have been paying attention and those who haven't.

With all the new registrations, this year's total of voters is sure to exceed the 122 million of 2004, and the Democratic candidate's challenge will be to make himself known to those like the woman in West Virginia who rejected him saying, "No More Hussein," and millions more who don't know even that much about him.

Presidential campaigns, for better or worse, come down to the perceived character of the candidates, and Obama has come a long way but is still relatively unknown to many, if not most, voters.

In Iowa last night, he asserted that the hard-fought battle for the nomination was good for his party, saying, "Now, some may see the millions upon millions of votes cast for each of us as evidence that our party is divided. But I see it as proof that we have never been more energized and united in our desire to take this country in a new direction."

For the next six months, the Obama campaign will be all about going beyond the energized and united to reach the apathetic, the uninformed and the fearful to persuade them that they and their families will be better off with him in the Oval Office than John McCain.

John F. Kennedy had the same problem in 1960, a young Senator running against a better-known, more experienced political figure, and he overcame it. Eleanor Roosevelt, late in life, compared him to her husband being energized by the campaign crowds of 1932.

In the era of TV and the Internet, Obama is capable of outdoing them both.

Now for Something Completely Different...

When it comes to political attacks, Americans are technologically as far behind the Russians in symbols of power as in the Sputnik days of the 1950s.

Giving a speech to unite opposition forces in Moscow this weekend, former chess champion Garry Kasparov was interrupted by a radio-controlled toy helicopter in the shape of a penis.

No word whether the missive was launched by Putin supporters or to promote Viagra.

McCain, the Goldilocks Candidate

Unnerving as the image may be, there is a contorted Three-Bearish quality to the tale of the Republican standard bearer this year.

After the party found Rudy Giuliani too hot and Mitt Romney too cold, Ron Paul too hard and Fred Thompson too soft, they reluctantly decided that John McCain was just right, albeit not far right enough to suit some of the more vocal party animals.

Pappa Bear Rush Limbaugh has been ignoring McCain and diverting himself by getting Republicans to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries.

Momma Bear Ann Coulter is still sulking about McCain sitting in her chair with threats to vote for Hillary in November because "she's more conservative than he is" and "would be stronger on the war on terrorism."

Only Baby Bear Bill Kristol, with the optimism of youth, has warmed up to the GOP Goldilocks, babbling that "Republican hopes of denying Democrats complete control of the federal government for the next couple of years may rest on the promise of 'McCain exceptionalism,'” which could result in "a return to this cold-war model--a strong-on-national-security and supporter-of-middle-American-values Republican presidential candidate prevailing, while at the same time voters choose a Democratic Congress."

As fairy tales go, that may be the most outlandish of all.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Last of Our Kennedy Past

For my generation, the sadness over Ted Kennedy's diagnosis today goes deeper than the sudden awareness of one man's mortality. He is our last link to a time of youth and hope.

The youngest of Joe and Rose's nine children, he grew up in the shadow of not only Jack and Bobby, but the oldest brother Joe, who died in World War II. When JFK was elected president, Teddy had to wait two years before he turned thirty and could run for and win his brother's vacated Senate seat.

Over the next 44 years, he won eight more elections, survived both the accident at Chappaquiddick and the ensuing scandal, made a half-hearted attempt to run for the White House in 1980 and then worked hard and tirelessly to become a figure worthy of the Kennedy legend.

The shock and grief on the faces of his Congressional colleagues today testify to his accomplishments both as a keeper of the Kennedy flame and a figure of accomplishment in his own right.

As we prepare to turn a new page in our political history, Ted Kennedy is a living reminder of some of the best that preceded it. Millions will be praying for him.

Why Is NBC So Touchy?

Ed Gillespie only wants to help. Karl Rove's successor in the White House has embarked on a new career as media critic, judging NBC guilty of "deceitful editing to further a media-manufactured storyline" and create an "utterly misleading and irresponsible" impression of a Presidential interview about his speech to the Israeli Knesset.

In times like these, Americans need all the media criticism they can get, particularly corrective analysis coming from such an informed source as a lifelong lobbyist whose clients have included Enron and, perhaps more pertinent in this case, Viacom, owner of CBS.

In 2003, the watchdog group Public Citizen called Gillespie an "embedded lobbyist" to further the interests of his "corporate benefactors" as Chairman of the Republican National Committee.

In his new incarnation, the Counselor to the President is urging NBC news honcho Steve Capus to reassure Americans that "blatantly partisan talk show hosts like Christopher Matthews and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC don't hold editorial sway over the NBC network news division."

Capus reassured him that the Presidential interview "has been available, unedited, in its entirety, for the past day, on our website. Our reporting accurately reflects the interview...NBC News, as part of a free press in a free society, makes its own editorial decisions."

But why can't they see that Gillespie just wants to help?

Obama-McCain Family Values

In warning Republicans to "lay off my wife" in their ads, Barack Obama yesterday was challenging John McCain to call off the dogs who are nipping at Michelle Obama just as they attacked Cindy McCain to give George W. Bush the nomination in 2000.

Opponents, Obama said on Good Morning America, "can say whatever they want to say about me, my track record. I've been in public life for 20 years," then added that if "they're going to try to make Michelle an issue in this campaign, they should be careful. Because that I find unacceptable."

The subtext of Obama's warning could be a reminder that, as late as last summer, Mrs. McCain was speaking out against such tactics, as the New York Times reported in an interview with her: "Ugly accusations about her family, she insisted, will not be tolerated this time. 'If that were to even bubble its head up again,' she said, "we’d knock that flat.'”

In 2000, the Rove smear machine attacked with slanders and push polls about everything from Mrs. McCain's one-time addiction to pain killers to rumors that their adopted daughter from Bangladesh was a black child McCain had fathered.

Eventually, Bridget, now 16, learned about that in a Google search of her name and went to her mother in tears. “She wanted to know why President Bush hated her,” Mrs. McCain said. “And I had to explain to her...how nasty campaigns can be.”

Now the question for the Republican candidate is: Can he control those same groups who also did the Swiftboat ads against John Kerry in 2004, which McCain publicly denounced?

On GMA, Obama praised his wife's patriotism and said that for Republicans "to try to distort or to play snippets of her remarks in ways that are unflattering to her I think is just low class...especially for people who purport to be promoters of family values."

McCain no doubt agrees, but will the man who claims to be strong enough to protect Americans from their enemies abroad be able to shield them from the sleazebags who make those commercials?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Senator Byrd's Decision

A 90-year-old man, who once wore the robes of the Ku Klux Klan and whose constituents voted for Hillary Clinton last week by a margin of more than 2-1, endorsed Barack Obama for president today.

Sen. Robert Byrd of West Viriginia, third in line of presidential succession, may well be the most superdelegate of them all, in deciding the Democratic nominee.

“I believe," he said, "Barack Obama is a shining young statesman, who possesses the personal temperament and courage necessary to extricate our country from this costly misadventure in Iraq, and to lead our nation at this challenging time in history...Barack Obama is a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian, and he has my full faith and support.”

Byrd, who led the opposition to the 2002 Senate resolution giving George W. Bush a blank check to invade Iraq, was apparently not swayed by Hillary Clinton's conversion to his point of view and co-sponsoring a resolution last year to "de-authorize" the war.

More than four thousand lives and half a trillion dollars after her vote for the original authorization, the Senator from West Virginia must have decided that was too little and too late.

The Gender Agenda

"If many of Mrs. Clinton’s legions of female supporters believe she was undone even in part by gender discrimination," the New York Times asks today, "how eagerly will they embrace Senator Barack Obama, the man who beat her?"

The question underscores how crucial it is for Democrats to untangle the issue of what derailed America's first woman president from what seemed her clear path to the White House only a year ago. Was Hillary Clinton's campaign undone by the message or the messengers?

In the latter category, Sen. Clinton, although she bears ultimate responsibility, was clearly hampered not only by her husband but hot-shot strategist Mark Penn, who failed to see that voters would be turned off by a play-it-safe campaign fueled by what looked like a sense of entitlement. (They overlooked the lesson of what Harry Truman did to Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, a "sure" year for Republicans.)

"When people look at the arc of the campaign, it will be seen that being a woman, in the end, was not a detriment and if anything it was a help to her,” presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin points out. Her candidacy faltered as a result of “strategic, tactical things that have nothing to do with her being a woman.”

No matter how true that may be, and even if they accept its validity, that will bring cold comfort to millions of women who have so much hope invested in what Hillary Clinton calls breaking "the highest and hardest glass ceiling" in American life.

All other calculations aside, and there are many, this frustration has to be taken into account in Barack Obama's choice of a running mate. With consideration and without condescension, the potential first African-American President has to think long and hard about the symbolic and practical value of breaking through American prejudice with two for the price of one.

"Because He's Black"

With Hillary Clinton's chances fading, the issue of race is boiling to the surface, as it did in West Virginia and will again in Kentucky tomorrow.

Last night on PBS, Bill Moyers quoted one of last week's voters telling a BBC interviewer why Barack Obama can't win the White House: "Because he's black."

"There it was," Moyers pointed out, "no longer a whisper but out in public, on the record: Because he is black. The fault line in American history is now a dividing line in this election...We heard it all week and now the political world is asking: Could the candidate who has won more votes, more states and more delegates lose in November and could the reason be race?"

Ugly as the question is, it will be asked and answered between now and November, but what it says about America, regardless of whether Obama wins or loses, is something we all need to know.

How deep does the prejudice go? As he loses two border states, Obama drew 75,000 people in Oregon yesterday, a huge crowd that brings back visual memories of Martin Luther King in Washington over 40 years ago making his "I have a dream" speech.

The New York Times reports Obama's reaction: “Wow! Wow! Wow!” were his first words as he surveyed the multitude, which included people in kayaks and small pleasure craft on the river on an unseasonably hot day in Oregon.

"It is 'fair to say this is the most spectacular setting for the most spectacular crowd' of his campaign, he told the audience."

Obama is living out King's dream this year, but how will it end? In a replay of yesterday's heartening spectacle or as a nightmare in the darkest part of the American heart silently voting its fears and prejudices in the solitude of ballot boxes in November?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Feeding Frenzies, Here and There

The rising threat of childhood obesity in America is in the Washington Post spotlight this weekend offering a bizarre contrast to recent headlines about worldwide hunger and starvation.

"In ways only beginning to be understood," the Post reports, "overweight at a young age appears to be far more destructive to well-being than adding excess pounds later in life...

"Doctors are seeing confirmation of this daily: boys and girls in elementary school suffering from high blood pressure, high cholesterol and painful joint conditions; a soaring incidence of type 2 diabetes, once a rarity in pediatricians' offices; even a spike in child gallstones, also once a singularly adult affliction...

"With one in three children in this country overweight or worse, the future health and productivity of an entire generation--and a nation--could be in jeopardy."

The inequality mirrored in overfed children here and starving children elsewhere is complex on both sides of the equation.

Crop failures, hoarding, corruption, manipulated food prices, even natural disasters exacerbated by political stupidity (as in Myanmar) are part of the politics of starvation that resist humanitarian and financial aid efforts.

The alarming rise in American childhood obesity has roots in a culture of sedentary pastimes, among other causes, but fast food and nutritional ignorance contribute to an epidemic that may overwhelm our health care system in generations to come, even as increasing economic disparities of the Bush years leave pockets of hunger and malnutrition here that resemble Third World suffering.

If human beings can't get their act together on something as basic as rationally providing and consuming food for the survival of the species, what hope is there for progress on the knottier problems of civilization?

McCain's Backward Media March

For a campaign in which he faces a quarter-of-a-century age gap with Barack Obama, John McCain has been busy searching for the media's Fountain of Youth, last night on SNL and with a forthcoming interview in Glamour.

Taking a leaf from his hero, Ronald Reagan, who was even older when running for reelection in 1984, McCain is making jokes about his age. In a presidential debate back then, the 73-year-old Reagan deadpanned about Walter Mondale: "I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent's youth and inexperience."

In a parody political ad on Saturday Night Live, McCain emoted, “Good evening, my fellow Americans. I ask you: what should we be looking for in our next president? Certainly, someone who is very, very, very old...I have the courage, the wisdom, the experience and most importantly, the oldness necessary."

He added that controlling government spending was about being able to look your children in the eye, “or in my case my children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, great-great grandchildren and great-great-great grandchildren--the youngest of whom are nearing retirement.’’

Interviewed by Glamour, whose readers are young women under 35, McCain says he finds the website, ThingsYoungerMcCain.com., "hilarious." Told that Scrabble, the Golden Gate Bridge and area codes are on the list, he added, "Yes indeed. Not to mention the Internet and...maybe even color TV."

Technically, experimental color sets predate him, but not cable TV. More importantly, he is senior to the whole generation of Baby Boomers, who now make up the majority of older voters.

But that won't faze the potentially most ancient President ever to take office, who has been one of Jon Stewart's most frequent Daily Show guests. Next stop: Sesame Street.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Abandoning Bush

The rush to get off the S.S. Bush turned into a stampede this week as John McCain, Congressional Republicans and even the Saudis headed for the lifeboats.

King Abdullah, who used to hold his hand, gave Bush the royal finger when asked to pump more oil to ease gas prices.

John McCain backed away from the Imperial Presidency, not only by promising to emulate British prime ministers and regularly going to both houses of Congress to answer questions but also, as a New York Times editorial put it:

"McCain said, if elected, he will...work in 'concerted action' with other nations to counter the nuclear threats of Iran and North Korea; and eliminate a tax meant for the rich that is crushing the upper-middle class. He promised to not 'subvert the purpose of legislation,' as Mr. Bush has done, with signing statements."

Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans were jumping ship by joining Democrats in ignoring Bush's veto threats with lopsided votes to boost food stamps and farm subsidies and to order the Administration to stop pouring oil into the nation's emergency reserves.

Over vocal White House opposition, 35 of 49 Senate Republicans voted with Democrats to pass a $290 billion farm bill to increase food aid for the needy. A hundred House Republicans had voted the same way after the party's third straight loss of a long-held GOP seat on Tuesday.

After seeing the results of Dick Cheney's help in that special election, Congressional Republicans have a sinking feeling about November. If George W. Bush is looking for friends until then, he will have to turn to his dog Barney.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Crapshoot in Saudi Arabia

George W. Bush, who wants to talk about oil prices, is spending the day with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who wants to talk about pulverizing Iran.

Four months ago, when our President asked his Mideast friend for help, the price of crude was $91 a barrel. Yesterday it closed at $127. But the White House National Security Adviser says, "There are limits to how much that production can be ramped up without enormous investments of dollars and enormous investments of time."

Translation: The Saudis won't do much to help their lame-duck friend lower American gas prices between now and November unless they are spooked by the prospect of a President Obama. In 2004, they boosted Bush's reelection chances with a production surge.

On the Iranian front, the White House announced that Saudi Arabia will join the 70-nation Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism and the 85-nation Proliferation Security Initiative, and the U.S. will " work with" the Saudis to help protect their energy resources and develop "civilian nuclear power" to be used in medicine, industry and power generation.

Translation: The Saudis get vague promises of help with nuclear weapons if Iran pushes on with efforts to get them.

As always, the dice are loaded against us in the Mideast crapshoot, no matter what we do. When the Democrats take power next year, they will have to figure out a new way to play the game.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bush's Ultimate Indecency

Anyone looking for a new definition of "obscenity" should consult George W. Bush's remarks today at the 60th anniversary celebration of the birth of Israel.

The man who set off needless bloodshed in the Middle East five years ago chose to lecture survivors of the Holocaust about appeasement.

"Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along," Bush told the Israeli Knesset.

"We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: 'Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided.' We have an obligation to call this what it is--the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history."

This President may not know much about appeasement, but he is the model of those who have been and will be discredited by history.

Barack Obama, who now seems America's only hope to begin to undo the Bush damage to America's moral standing in the world, had an answer:

"It is sad that President Bush would use a speech to the Knesset on the 60th anniversary of Israel's independence to launch a false political attack. It is time to turn the page on eight years of policies that have strengthened Iran and failed to secure America or our ally Israel.

"George Bush knows that I have never supported engagement with terrorists, and the president's extraordinary politicization of foreign policy and the politics of fear do nothing to secure the American people or our stalwart ally Israel."

It's sad that we have to wait until next January to rid ourselves of Bush's ignorant indecency.

Art News: No Freudian Slip

The world's record price for a painting by a living artist was set yesterday when the life-sized nude of a largish woman by Sigmund Freud's grandson was sold to an unknown buyer for $33.6 million at Christie's in New York.

Titled "Benefits Supervisor Sleeping," the 1995 work by the 85-year-old Lucian Freud portrays Sue Tilley, now 51, reclining on a dilapidated sofa.

The money, the Freudian connection, the ample nudity, the subject's working class status may suggest a confluence of 21st century cultural themes, but the art world sees the sale only as a hopeful sign of vitality in the face of a slumping world economy. It reflects, according to a Christie's official, the "incredibly healthy" state of the art market.

Recognized as one of the world's great painters, Freud has been a subject of notoriety before. His recent unflattering portrait of Queen Elizabeth was widely criticized. "It makes her look like one of the royal corgis who has suffered a stroke," the editor of an art journal complained.

But another subject, supermodel Kate Moss, painted nude and pregnant in 2002, was quoted as saying she found the artist, then 80, "very cool." Her portrait was sold at Christie's two year later for 3.9 million pounds.

The Tootsie Issue

Words seldom fail him, but one has tripped Barack Obama up.

Yesterday he apologized to a Michigan reporter for calling her "sweetie." In a voicemail message, he mea-culpaed, "That's a bad habit of mine. I do it sometimes with all kinds of people. I mean no disrespect and so I am duly chastened on that front. Feel free to call me back."

But he may be an habitual offender. Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times points out that he used the word in addressing a Pennsylvania factory worker last month.

If Obama shares a ticket with Hillary Clinton, he'll have to watch his mouth

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

John Edwards" Pitch for AG

In a reprise of his own stump speeches, John Edwards simply switched pronouns and endorsed Barack Obama tonight, positioning himself as the leading candidate for Attorney General in the new Administration.

In doing so, he was backing the clear winner of the nomination, preceding it with a eulogy for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

“It is very, very hard to get up every day and do what she’s done,” Edwards said. “It is hard to go out there and fight and speak up when the odds turn against you. What she has shown is strength and character.”

He said Mrs. Clinton is a “woman who is made of steel. She is a leader in this country not because of her husband but because of what she has done."

So Edwards, as usual, has it both ways, backing the winner and praising the loser as a champion of party unity.

If he does get to be Attorney General, his experience in negligence law will come in handy to investigate and clean up eight years of abuses by the Bush-Cheney-Rove cartel.

The House Is Not a Home for GOP

Congress keeps turning Bluer with the Mississippi victory yesterday of Democrat Travis Childers despite Dick Cheney's stumping for his opponent and the imminent departure of a five-term New York member after starring in a 21st century remake of an Alec Guinness movie, "The Captain's Paradise," about the master of a ship who shuttles between wives in two separate locales.

After a complicated Mother's Day weekend, Rep. Vito Fossella was back in Washington yesterday, but his future was clouded by a DIU arrest after running a red light in Alexandria, Va., which disclosed that he had a second family there.

But it is the Bush presidency rather than scandal that is decimating the party. According to The Hill, "The third straight House special election loss in three conservative districts this year is a clear indication that the GOP brand is turning off voters and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is in disarray."

In an effort to market themselves better, House Republicans have come up with a new catch phrase, "Change You Deserve," but some spoilsports are pointing out the slogan was borrowed from an ad campaign for an antidepressant.

The way things are going, that may turn out to be prophetic.

Bush's Iraq Sacrifice

Before his five-day Middle East tour of lame-duck quacking on Israel's 60th birthday and to hold hands with Saudi Arabia's gas-price gougers, President Bush revealed his personal sacrifice for the war in Iraq: He stopped playing golf.

In his first on-line interview, he told Politico and Yahoo News, "I don't want some mom whose son may have recently died to see the commander in chief playing golf. I feel I owe it to the families to be in solidarity as best as I can with them. And I think playing golf during a war just sends the wrong signal.”

But Bush insisted that his own hardship was worth it to avert a doomsday scenario that, in the event of a premature US withdrawal, "extremists throughout the Middle East would be emboldened, which would eventually lead to another attack on the United States."

"The United States pulling out of Iraq or pulling out of the Middle East or not maintaining a forward presence would send all kinds of signals throughout the Middle East," he said. "And it would shake everybody's nerves, and it would embolden the very same people that we're trying to defeat."

Asked if he was "misled" into starting the war, the President refused to pass the buck: “Do I think somebody lied to me? No, I don't. I think it was just, you know, they analyzed the situation and came up with the wrong conclusion.”

Oh.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Can Democrats Play Nice?

Wise old heads are urging Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to cool it from here to November.

In a New York Times OpEd, George McGovern recalls the nastiness that let Richard Nixon slip between his party's cracks:

"In 1968, we Democrats tipped the election to the Republicans and defeated our able nominee, Hubert Humphrey, by splitting our party wide open over the war in Vietnam.

"That year, after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, his staff talked me into running for the nomination and taking over his delegates. At the convention in Chicago, after Vice President Humphrey won the nomination, one of my fellow candidates, Eugene McCarthy, perhaps understandably, refused even to stand next to him on the convention stage in a show of unity. I believe that our party’s divisions cost us our chance to prevent Richard Nixon, who at that time had been out of office for eight years, from ever becoming president."

After today’s West Virginia primary, McGovern suggests that Obama and Clinton make joint visits to the five remaining locales, "agree not to criticize each other," and then attend "a reception where citizens paying $50 a ticket would mingle with the two candidates" to raise money for local and state candidates in the fall elections.

In the Washington Post, veteran columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. proposes Hillary Clinton take on a new role as "a stronger and more independent figure" by not letting supporters corner Obama about handing her the vice-presidency but let him heal the Democratic breach by choosing one of her supporters, Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell or Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh.

After her victory lap in West Viriginia tonight, Clinton and Obama will be under a lot more pressure to play nice. It would be heartening to see them do that.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Studying Jon Stewart

"The Daily Show performs a function that is close to journalistic in nature, getting people to think critically about the public square. In that sense, it is a variation of the tradition of Russell Baker, Art Hoppe, Art Buchwald, H.L. Mencken and other satirists who once graced the pages of American newspapers."

That's the conclusion of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism after studying Jon Stewart and his merry crew for an entire year, buttressed by the fact that the Daily Show "not only assumes, but even requires, previous and significant knowledge of the news on the part of viewers if they want to get the joke."

The study picks up on the fact that the show is as much about media criticism as political satire by noting, "The press itself is another significant focus on The Daily Show. In all, 8% of the time was made up of segments about the press and news media. That is more than double the amount of coverage of media in the mainstream press overall during the same period."

In a time when MSM are featuring jokers like Robert Novak, William Kristol and Karl Rove, it's comforting to see some academic recognition of commentators who are being intentionally funny.

McCain Mutinies

Before he is anointed by the Republican convention this summer, John McCain's legendary temper will be tested by a swarm of stings from both Left and Right.

Not only do Arianna Huffington and a pair of "West Wing" actors claim he told them he didn't vote for Bush in 2000 and Senate Democrats insist he considered switching parties, McCain is still not free of doubts about his Conservative conversion emanating from admirers of Ron Paul, Bob Barr and Mike Huckabee.

The Los Angeles Times reports that "the forces of Rep. Ron Paul have been organizing across the country to stage an embarrassing public revolt against Sen. John McCain when Republicans gather for their national convention in St. Paul at the beginning of September."

In addition, former Congressman Bob Barr, who led the outcry for Bill Clinton's impeachment, is looking for the Libertarian nomination this fall, another potential outlet for Far Right unhappiness.

To top it off, Robert Novak, the master of Republican intrigue, reports McCain "has a problem of disputed dimensions with a vital component of the conservative coalition: evangelicals...These militants look at former Baptist preacher Huckabee as 'God's candidate' for president in 2012. Whether they can be written off as merely a troublesome fringe group depends on Huckabee's course.

"Huckabee's announced support of McCain is unequivocal, and he is regarded in the McCain camp as a friend and ally. But credible activists are spreading the word that Huckabee secretly allies himself with the bitter-end opposition."

As the Democrats sort themselves out in a bid for unity, McCain is having his own problems in that regard, and his anger-management skills may be sorely tested in the coming weeks.

The LBJing of Hillary Clinton

Now that the question is coming front and center, Barack Obama may want to turn to his backer Ted Sorensen for advice about putting Hillary Clinton on the ticket with him, as John F. Kennedy did with his chief rival for the nomination, Lyndon Johnson.

Carl Bernstein, of Watergate fame, reports today that she "is probably going to fight to be the vice presidential nominee on an Obama-for-president ticket."

After a bitter campaign, it won't be easy. Obama supporters, notably his wife Michelle, are reportedly opposed, but as Sorensen notes in his new memoirs, so was JFK's brother Robert. Yet Kennedy offered Johnson a place on the ticket, mostly to help win Texas and other Southern states in what would turn out to be a close election.

Moreover, Sorensen could also enlighten Obama about the virtues of converting a former enemy into an ally or at least neutralizing possible opposition. If Johnson remained as Senate Majority Leader, JFK told him in 1960, he "would be just impossible...Lyndon would screw me all the time."

Unpalatable as the idea may be to Obama's most fervent supporters--ironically, even Ted Kennedy has publicly opposed it--this could be another time when the Democratic Party needs unity more than a balanced ticket.

True believers in both camps will offer fervent arguments about why it wouldn't work but, in a year when so much is at stake, neatness may not count.

The Most Superdelegate of All?

A 90-year-old man may turn out to be a swing vote for the Democratic nomination. Robert Byrd is President Pro Tempore of the Senate, third in line of presidential succession behind Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi.

Tomorrow, if the polls are right, Hillary Clinton will defeat Barack Obama in his home state of West Virginia by more than 2 to 1, and in the past year, she has been wooing Byrd by cosponsoring with him a vain resolution to "deauthorize" the war in Iraq.

As a superdelegate, Sen. Byrd has not declared a preference as yet, but his choice may depend on how well his memory serves him.

In October 2002, he passionately opposed giving George W. Bush a blank check to invade Iraq, but Hillary Clinton took the Senate floor to disagree, "from the perspective of a Senator from New York who has seen all too closely the consequences of last year's terrible attacks on our Nation. In balancing the risks of action versus inaction, I think New Yorkers, who have gone through the fires of hell, may be more attuned to the risk of not acting. I know I am.

"So it is with conviction that I support this resolution as being in the best interests of our Nation."

The following March, just before bombs began falling in Baghdad, Byrd told the Senate chamber, "(T)oday I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart...We flaunt our superpower status with arrogance...There is no credible information to connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11."

John McCain rose to disagree, and Hillary Clinton was silent. When he exercises his power as a superdelegate, will Robert Byrd remember that?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Obama's Mom, McCain's and Chelsea's

Today John McCain is unveiling a sassy TV commercial with his 96-year-old mother to remind voters about his good genes and American values. Iffy as it may be to call attention to his age, the ad underscores the diversity of motherhood in this campaign.

Roberta McCain, who gave birth to her son at a Naval Air Station in Panama, where her husband, the son of an Admiral and a future Admiral himself, was based, radiates the aura of a strict, no-nonsense parent out of a bygone era. John McCain always knew exactly who he was.

Barack Obama's mother was a dreamer with, in his words, a "combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in...but also a certain recklessness...always searching for something. She wasn't comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box." Her travels and exotic marriages produced a unique bi-racial man who has spent his life finding and creating himself.

Somewhere between these extremes of certainty and self-invention is Hillary Clinton's biographical journey from a well-to-do suburban childhood that took her to college as a Goldwater girl, transformed her into a Eugene McCarthy protester against the Vietnam war and eventually the first woman within striking distance of the presidency.

In this post-Victorian, post-Freudian era, motherhood comes in all shapes and sizes, producing remarkable diversity in the generation that will define the 21st century.

Happy Mother's Day to one and all.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Picture of American Prejudice

The Fox Movie Channel showed "Gentleman's Agreement" last night, a preachy drama about anti-Semitism that won the Academy Award 60 years ago, and it brought into focus the realization that I may live to see a black man inaugurated as President of the United States.

What Barack Obama faces from now until November would be unimaginable to the people who made and saw that movie then, including a 23-year-old just back from World War II who had little audacity and even less hope of living in the rich, glossy world it portrayed.

Gregory Peck played a magazine writer who pretends to be Jewish. A decade later, I was an editor on one of those magazines, unknowingly hired by George W. Bush's grandfather as the first Jew among thousands of employees, working with Laura Z. Hobson, who wrote the novel on which the picture was based.

When it came out, there was an uproar against the director, Elia Kazan, and the producer, Darryl Zanuck, whose names sounded foreign and were presumed to be of Jewish origin. Hobson relished the irony that they weren't but that she, who was but had married someone with an Anglo-Saxon name, escaped the anger of the offended.

Prejudice is still a nasty, shadowy business that, in the land of the free and the home of the brave, seldom shows its face openly. No one uses phrases like "gentleman's agreement" or "restricted" these days, but "blue-collar voters" and "Reagan Democrats" serve the same purpose as codes to mask fear and hatred of people who are different.

We haven't had a Jewish president but, if and when Barack Obama takes the oath of office next January, "Gentleman's Agreement" will be even more of an anachronism than it is now. But until then, it's a movie that Hillary Clinton, John McCain and their supporters might want to think about.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Hillary Clinton's Nixon Moment

Who will tell her it's time to go? Certainly not her husband, whose dynastic hopes will die hardest. Nor the limp leaders of Congressional Democrats, although Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein have been clearing their throats. Al Gore is too busy saving the planet and Howard Dean is just trying to hang onto his job as party chairman.

As Barack Obama now takes the lead in the slow dribble of superdelegates into his pledge pool, there is no one to do for Hillary Clinton what Republican leaders did for Richard Nixon in August 1974, when the Senate Minority Leader, House Minority Leader and Barry Goldwater, the former presidential candidate, went to the White House and told him that hanging on was hopeless. Nixon stepped down the next day.

But the Clintons are not good listeners and, as their desperation grows, she is openly relying on race, telling USA Today that "Obama's support among working, hard-working Americans, white Americans, is weakening again...There's a pattern emerging here."

One of her non-fans, Peggy Noonan, writes in today's Wall Street Journal: "The question 'Who will tell her, who can make her go?' is really the question 'Who will save the Democratic Party in 2008?' It cannot be doubted at this point that real damage is being done to its standard-bearer and to all those who will be on the ticket with him."

But with friends like its weak-kneed nabobs, the Democratic Party doesn't need enemies. When will its leaders do for Hillary Clinton what Republicans did for Richard Nixon before he took his own party down in flames?

Cindy McCain's Prenup With Us

Democrats clamoring for the Republican candidate's wife to release her tax returns are setting themselves up to look petty and peevish in an election that should be about Iraq, the US economy and our place in the world.

Voters know that Cindy McCain is a very rich woman who has inherited an estimated $100 million. Is hounding her for more detail any more admirable than the clamor in 2004 for Theresa Heinz Kerry to show us the money?

When they married, the McCains apparently signed a prenuptial agreement to keep their money separate, as many couples do in second marriages. Do we need to be more involved in her finances than her husband is?

Yes, yes, he traveled in her corporate jet during the campaign, and we should be sure that he did it as legally as any candidate uses such advantages.

But otherwise, it's hard to see how Mrs. McCain's money is any of the public's business. That she uses some of it for humanitarian purposes reflects well on her, but that too doesn't have much bearing on whether her husband is qualified to be president.

Katrina to the Nth Degree?

Myanmar is one of those mirrors Nature suddenly holds up every so often to make human beings face hard truths about what we call civilization.

As tens of thousands die, many needlessly, and millions face disease and starvation, international aid officials struggle against the barriers set up by politicians to preserve their power.

"(W)ith relief efforts still largely stymied by the country’s isolationist military rulers," the New York Times reports, "frustrated United Nations officials all but demanded Thursday that the government open its doors to supplies and aid workers."

As Americans watch in horror, Myanmar is a demonstration of how high the price of political self-protection can go, how much life can be lost to incompetent and uncaring exercise of power.

As we distance ourselves from such behavior, questions arise about Katrina, Iraq and the games that our own leaders are now playing in Washington over efforts to keep tens of thousands from losing their homes to foreclosure.

As we silently congratulate ourselves that life here is not held as cheaply as it is in Southeast Asia, it may be a good time to take a look in that mirror Nature is holding up there and ask our ourselves some hard questions about how much better we are doing here.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

South Dakota Spoilsport

Et tu, George McGovern? After Tuesday's balloting, the 1972 Democratic presidential candidate announced his support for Barack Obama and expressed hope for an "early decision" on the nomination.

But as a former senator from South Dakota, why would he want to deny his state's chance for a place in the sun, or at least on cable TV, for its June 3rd primary?

South Dakota gets so little attention, as I learned when I was stationed there during World War II in Rapid City, a sleepy place in the Black Hills, not far from Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickock was shot in the back holding aces and eights. His death hand was framed in the local saloon where I played poker with ranchers and Native Americans, who were still called Indians in those days.

On the trip from the air base, our bus would pass Mt. Rushmore with huge sculptures of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln watching over a scrubby landscape.

Only old movies commemorate those places these days, with Gary Cooper playing Wild Bill in "The Plainsman" and Cary Grant scrambling over those big faces in Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest."

Why would McGovern want to deny Hillary and Bill and Barack a chance to reenact those classic American scenes and help the tourist trade this summer?

A Texas Crop of Political Paranoia

As the US slides into recession, the Lone Star State is trying to figure out what to do with a $10 billion surplus. While politicians in other states worry about job losses and home foreclosures, the Comptroller and Legislature are wrestling with ways of giving cash back to their people.

"Much of the extra money," the Houston Chronicle reports, "can be attributed to record oil prices. While motorists are being socked with ever-increasing gasoline costs, oil and gas employment in Texas has been booming."

To some, this may suggest a connection between oil and the war in Iraq and a former governor in the White House. But Texas has always been fertile ground for suspicion.

Soon after JFK's assassination in Dallas, at a meeting with a group of visiting Russian poets, one of them asked why Americans editors were not worried about the murder of their president in a place from which his successor took control of the country. We assured them that such a thought only reflected the state of mind of those who lived under the Soviet system.

Aren't we lucky to be free of such political paranoia?